Tag Archives: book reviews

A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other

I received a copy of this book from the author.

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“A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other” by Ralph Webster is a biography/autobiography about his father Jerry Webster, originally named Gerhard Wobser. The book is divided into two parts: Jerry’s recollections about the rise of Nazis during his childhood in what was then East Prussia, and his son Ralph’s observations about Jerry at the end of his life. Jerry was born in what is now Poland in 1922 to a reasonably well-to-do family. He had three much older sisters and was the treasured son of aging parents who at times felt isolated from his siblings due to the age difference. As anti-Jewish sentiment grows in the region, the Wobsers, who are all baptised Lutherans, find themselves targeted for a heritage mostly forgotten.

This book was written after Webster’s travels through Europe, witnessing first-hand the “refugee crisis“. Although I have been reading quite a few stories about the children of Holocaust survivors this year, one story that I did not know much about was the story of those who tried to leave early. Although in the early days of Nazi Germany, many Jews were permitted and even encouraged to leave, lots of countries (including Australia) were reluctant to take them. With dwindling resources due to increasingly discriminatory laws, the Wobser family had to make do and send Jerry unaccompanied to England and eventually flee to China. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the reluctance of countries to take on refugees that took place then and is taking place now.

This story is written clearly with great detail, and I think captures the how slowly rights can be eroded perfectly. I liked the balance of past and present, and I think that Ralph’s own insights about his father worked well to provide a good sense of ending to a long life that had begun just before World War II. The only thing that is a bit difficult with this book is some of the earlier chapters about Jerry’s upbringing are a little repetitive, and he explains his family’s situation and structure several times over. While this helps to reiterate their situation in the beginning, it did slow the progress of the story at times.

A well-researched and well-considered book, this story is very relevant to our society today and shows that lessons can and should always be learnt from the past.

 

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My Brilliant Friend

I first really heard about this book when there was a media storm about the author’s real identity being revealed. The series had received a lot of acclaim, either in spite of or because of the author’s use of a pseudonym, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

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“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is a historical novel set in a poor, post-war neighbourhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Playing and going to school in this grim era, blonde Elena meets the naughty and sullen Lila who dazzles the teachers with her intelligence. After a cautious beginning to their friendship, Elena finds in Lila the inspiration and competition to succeed at school. However, as the two girls become teenagers, their lives begin to take increasingly different paths.

I think this is one of those books where my expectations just didn’t match up to my experience. It’s translated from Italian, and the translation seemed perfectly fluid. Ferrante manages to convey a tense, sepia tone to the novel that evolves as the economic situation in Naples improves. Ferrente’s real strength however is shining a light on the gender inequality of the time. Elena has to be consistently excellent at school to be allowed to share the same opportunities as boys the same age who are simply mediocre. I also thought that Ferrente handled Elena’s developing sexuality as a young woman very convincingly.

The uneasy but intense relationship between Elena and Lila is presented as the highlight of the book. The author spends a lot of time making many pointed observations about Lila and her life from the perspective of Elena, who is constantly comparing herself to her friend. However, I felt like a large proportion of the novel is laying groundwork for something that ultimately doesn’t even happen in this book. Although the focus of the novel appears to be Lila and how her upbringing shapes her life, I actually found the protagonist and narrator Elena far more interesting.

“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a series of four novels, and while I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’m compelled to read any more of the books. Ultimately, this book is fine, good even, but I just didn’t find it brilliant.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

Blankets

I think I picked this book up at Canty’s bookshop a while ago. They’ve been getting some really great graphic novels in recently, and I was really in the mood for an excellent one. I remember selecting this one in particular because it’s so highly acclaimed and I’d heard of it before.

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“Blankets” by Craig Thompson is a mostly-autobiographical graphic novel about Thompson’s experiences growing up as an Evangelical Christian in Wisconsin. Although Craig’s parents are very strict, he has a close relationship with his brother and they share vivid imaginary adventures together. However, as Craig grows older, they grow apart and a teenaged Craig begins to feel increasingly isolated, bullied and harassed in his small town. Then, one winter at Bible camp, Craig meets a young woman called Raina – finally, someone he connects with.

This is a stunning graphic novel, no question. Even though all the illustrations are black and white, Thompson’s illustrations are incredibly rich and expressive. The winters feel cold and Craig’s loneliness is palpable. The relationship between Craig and his brother Phil is one of the highlights of the book. The way Thompson maps their closeness when they share a bed, their increasing distance as teens and then their refound closeness was beautifully done. The imagery of blankets was done brilliantly as was Thomspon’s blend of reality and fantasy. Thompson’s exploration of religious themes and identity were also incredibly insightful and I think would resonate strongly with people who have grown up in a conservative Christian household. There is a lot packed in, and it’s quite long for a graphic novel, with all the themes very carefully constructed.

However, perhaps because the focus of the story is mostly on Craig’s faith, or perhaps because it’s a semi-autobiography, I felt like the story arch itself was overall a bit fuzzy and kind of trailed out towards the end. This book is definitely more journey than destination, but I did feel like there wasn’t much resolution at the end. I think the reason for this really goes to the heart of the story which was Craig’s friendship (and later relationship) with Raina.

Raina was really the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype who seemed to exist solely to be Craig’s “muse”. Although he was young, I really felt like Raina got the rough end of the stick. Juggling a lot of primary care for two disabled siblings, trying to graduate high school and balancing a long-distance relationship, I felt like Craig’s ultimate betrayal of Raina and the personal boundaries she asked for was never properly addressed. Instead of being a real person with real feelings, Raina ends up being  treated as an “experience” for Craig. A person about whom he is angry and then later nostalgic, but not quite enough of a real person to justify an apology. Thompson has explained that the character of Raina is actually an amalgamation of a high school love and his current partner. I think that Craig’s inability to appreciate that Raina has a life and priorities outside of him is visible as the reader, but I’m not sure it’s visible to Craig the character. In the end I felt like he was still thinking of what Raina could do for him, and not what he could have done for her.

Regardless, this is an excellent graphic novel and one that I think might resonate with a lot of people. If you haven’t read many graphic novels, I think this would be a great place to start.

 

 

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H is for Hawk

I bought a copy of this book a few years ago as a gift for my partner while I was on holidays in England. The cover is really striking, and being about falconry I thought my partner would really enjoy it. After he read it, I asked him what he thought. He agreed it was partly about falconry, but it seemed to also have a lot to do with the author’s own mental state. He thought maybe I might get a bit more out of it, but it sat on my bookshelf for absolute ages before I got a chance to get around to it.

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“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald is a non-fiction book about falconry. In her grief after her father’s sudden death, Macdonald rekindles an old hobby and buys herself a young goshawk. Part memoir, part biography, Macdonald juxtaposes her own experiences training a goshawk against those of English author T H White, whose own attempts over 60 years earlier were ultimately disastrous.

Macdonald is a wonderful nature writer who excels in finding beauty in the minutiae of the English countryside. Her depiction of the raw vigour of a bird of prey on the hunt throws Macdonald’s sorrow in stark relief. Macdonald marries the intensely personal with crisp academia and the result is an incredibly rich book.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the history of falconry. Macdonald explains that for centuries, the study of training birds of prey has relied completely on building trust and positive reinforcement. It’s amazing to me that this kind of thinking has only crossed over to the training of other animals such as dogs and horses in the past few decades. People still talk about “breaking” horses. This year I enrolled my dog into (desperately needed) obedience classes, and my local dog club is trialing new techniques with a very heavy focus on positive reinforcement. I really enjoyed drawing parallels between Macdonald’s work with her hawk and my work with my dog. The other thing I found really interesting is Macdonald’s quiet subversion as a female austringer in what was typically very much a man’s sport.

I could go on, but this is a fascinating, challenging and deeply personal read and I walked away from this book much more knowledgeable about goshawks, English literature and mental health.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Pretty Books

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society

I recently did a bit of a book swap with a colleague. I lent her “Skylarking” and she lent me this book. Unfortunately, I then promptly went away to America and it’s such a beautiful edition I didn’t want to chance ruining it or losing it overseas. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition, nicely understated with hints of red and gold in the slipcase and a really gorgeous texture to it. I finally managed to get around to reading it, and I think I probably liked her recommendation better than she liked mine.

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“The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society” is an epistolary historical fiction novel by Mary Ann Shaffer. This book is actually Shaffer’s only published work, and she died shortly before it was published. Her niece Annie Barrows, herself a published author, completed the final rewriting and editing of the manuscript. Although there is a wide cast of characters, the main is Juliet, a newspaper columnist who kept up witty commentary throughout World War II. After the war is over, she is struggling to decide what to do next when she receives a letter out of the blue from a man called Dawsey. Dawsey lives on the island of Guernsey, which had been occupied by Germany during the War, and had found a book inscribed with Juliet’s address. Fascinated by his story, and his membership with the mysterious Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, begins corresponding with him and other members.

This is the first book in a while to make me laugh out loud. It has such a delightful beginning and is written in this very charming, British way that is simply captivating. I was surprised to find out the author is actually American because she  absolutely nailed that very exaggerated yet extremely polite style of humour. Juliet is a great character, and meeting the people of Guernsey through her eyes is just lovely. I think the only issue I found with this book is that it seemed to peter off a little towards the end. Maybe because the subject-matter started to get a little more serious. Maybe the relationship development felt a little rushed in one case. Maybe because Shaffer herself wasn’t able to do those final edits before publication – I’m not sure.

Either way, this was really a spirited, upbeat novel that was a wonderful change from some of the heavier books I’ve been reading lately.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

A Feast of Ice & Fire

One of my very favourite things to do is to cook themed food with my besties to go with books we’re reading, TV shows we’re binging or films we’re watching. We had a big cooking session earlier this year for “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe“, but one of our favourite TV shows to cook themed food for is “Game of Thrones”, the TV adaptation of the fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R R Martin. Although he says he’s not much of a cook, Martin peppers his books with vivid descriptions of food. A little while ago, in response to my declarations of love for cooking themed food, I received this cookbook via Redditgifts. After struggling to avoid spoilers during my five weeks of American literature, we decided to go all out with our food and I decided to cook one of my favourite “Game of Thrones” recipes.

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“A Feast of Ice & Fire: The Official Companion Cookbook” is a cookbook by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer, with an introduction by George R R Martin himself, based on food described in his fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire”. The cookbook is mostly divided by regions of Westeros, the land in which the novels are set, each of which have their own particular climates and cuisines. The cookbook also has some preliminary chapters on how to stock a medieval kitchen and some basic medieval recipes which give the chef some grounding upon which to tackle some of the recipes.

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Many of the recipes have a traditional version and a modern version. So, if you want to try and cook aurochs or spice your food with grains for paradise, you can! Otherwise, you can use more modern ingredients for a more contemporary flavour. This time I went for a recipe I had tried before: Sister’s Stew. I really l like food where the plate or bowl is also food, and this one never disappoints. It’s a deliciously creamy seafood stew served in a bread loaf bowl.

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This is a beautifully structured, immersive cookbook with a dash of medieval history. A good bit of fun to spice up a TV night, though it looks like we’ll have to wait until 2019 to try more recipes!

 

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A Little Life

Content warning: basically everything but especially self-harm, trauma, abuse, child abuse, suicide ideation

I had this book recommended to me as a book that will “change your life”. That’s a pretty big statement, so I added it to my list of eBooks that I loaded up onto my Kobo before I left. When I was sitting in the aeroplane seat, deciding what to read on my trip home, I remembered this book and felt that I wanted to read something profound. I decided I would make this my tenth and final book on my five weeks of American literature.

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel about four close friends: Malcolm who is an architect, JB an artist, Willem an actor and Jude a lawyer. At the beginning of the story, set in New York after the four have graduated university, the reader spends a relatively equal amount of time with each character learning about their backstory. However, when Jude’s turn comes, it becomes apparent that his friends know almost nothing about his life before he started university. Even to Willem, who is closest to Jude and shares a one-bedroom apartment with him, Jude’s background largely remains a mystery; including how he sustained a car injury that resulted in a noticeable limp and chronic pain. As the story progresses, the narrative becomes less about the group of four and more and more about Jude’s past life and his struggle to overcome it.

This is a really difficult book to review. On one hand, Yanagihara is a beautiful writer who brings to life four complex characters by detailing the idiosyncrasies of each of their personalities. I think this book is a very powerful exploration of love, trust and relationships and Yanagihara focuses particularly on male relationships: parent/child, lover/lover and wholesome/toxic. I think she also tackled the issues of disability, chronic pain, self-harm and suicide ideation excellently and captures the helplessness that can be felt both by the individuals who are suffering and their loved ones who don’t know how best to support them.

However, as this book becomes more and more about Jude, as engrossing as it is, it does start to feel a lot like misery lit. After a while the suffering inflicted on Jude begins to feel utterly incessant as Yanagihara both gradually reveals the litany of abuses he has suffered over his lifetime and introduces new struggles as he ages. This book actually reminded me a bit of a much better written, much darker adult version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with Jude like a much more traumatised, adult version of Charlie. It’s a long book, and after awhile, especially when the other three characters start to fade into the background a little, it’s hard to see where exactly Yanagihara is going with it.

There were also couple of things that were a bit confusing to me. Firstly was the almost complete absence of meaningful female relationships in Jude’s life. Although there were some peripheral women, they all took secondary roles. I understand that the point of the book was to explore male relationships in all their forms. However, given Jude’s many negative experiences with men over his lifetime, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief that he wouldn’t form any kind of relationship with women. Another thing that wasn’t really very clear is how exactly the four friends all end up becoming extremely successful in their chosen fields. They sort of weren’t, and then they were, without any clear path between and the reader just has to take it as a given.

Finally, I felt a bit like the efforts of Willem and Jude’s doctor to get Jude to see a psychiatrist were at best inaccurate and at worst potentially deeply harmful. Jude doesn’t connect with the psychiatrist he’s referred to, and instead of finding him a psychiatrist he does connect with, his friends just keep trying to get him to go back to the same one. Having worked in mental health, I just question the impact that this might have on readers for whom the takeaway message seems to be that counselling is futile. I understand that survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse can take decades to disclose, but that doesn’t mean that seeing someone is pointless. Yet I think there’s a tension here, similar to the one I discussed in “13 Reasons Why“, between raising awareness about mental illness by depicting it dramatically and potentially having a negative impact on readers who may themselves be struggling with their mental health.

I can see why this book was a Man Booker Prize finalist. It’s well-written, gripping and, particularly with respect to disability and chronic pain, groundbreaking. However, I did feel a bit like Yanagihara subjected Jude to basically every single negative experience a person could conceivably live through and ultimately it just felt relentless.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

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